In my latest article for GR Business Online, I characterized President BS Aquino’s objectives to “de-escalate” the ongoing standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal and to “assert the Philippines’ sovereignty” over the disputed area as a weak and indecisive response, because it is fundamentally an irrational point of view – one simply cannot be acquiescent and assertive at the same time. The excuse of this Administration for essentially rolling over at China’s direction is the same one used by every Philippine government since the rather stupid eviction of the US military presence during the Administration of Aquino 1.0: The Philippines cannot possibly stand up to Chinese military strength, and the cultural and economic ties between the Philippines and the Big Red Brother to the north are too vital to risk.
The conventional wisdom is that neither of those factors can be easily dismissed; even if the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea – and to the Scarborough Shoal area in particular – are completely valid under international law, the military, economic, and psychological advantage of China over the Philippines makes those claims unenforceable, unless China decides to be altruistic and give up its own claims. The fatal flaw in this perspective is that it provides absolutely no incentive to the Chinese to cooperate. There is neither a carrot nor a stick – no demonstration of a mutual benefit to be gained for China in cooperating with the Philippines, nor any risk of negative consequences if it does not.
What successive governments of the Philippines have failed to acknowledge is that not only is China’s claim to the entire South China Sea completely spurious, China clearly understands that it is, and is simply counting on fear to allow it to continue being unreasonable. The Scarborough Shoal in particular is clearly Philippine territory; it lies on the Luzon continental shelf, is at least 75 nautical miles within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone as provided for in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – to which China is also a signatory – and lies closer to the Philippines’ landmass than any other country’s. This of course is why China continues to insist on “bilateral talks” to solve the various South China Sea disputes it has created. Referring the problem to international bodies or even working out a compromise en banc among the various countries with conflicting claims would quickly result in China getting the nothing out of the whole issue that it deserves; only by cowing its opponents ringing the South China Sea one by one can China hope to validate its imperialist aims.
Of course the comparative military and economic positions of China and the Philippines are inescapable realities, but there is more than one way to look at them. The vast military disadvantage of the Philippines is a gap this country can never seriously hope to close; the only country in the world that could possibly match the Chinese in armed strength is the United States, and that is a notion neither of those countries is likely to ever want to put to the test. The military disadvantage, then, is a practically a non-issue for the Philippines; a couple of used US Coast Guard cutters or even the handful of second-hand F-16s N/A is dreaming he will obtain from America are not going to represent any sort of deterrent threat to the Chinese, ever, and any effort on the part of the Philippines with that as an objective is going to be futile. By the same token, China’s great military strength is in one way a serious weakness; the range of conflicts in which China would not be regarded as the aggressor are so narrow that there is hardly any way the Chinese can use force without immediately incurring worldwide condemnation.
The economic ties between the Philippines and China are a more complex problem – can the Philippines afford to break those ties? China is the source of a vast amount of the Philippines’ imports and much of the country’s FDI, so a conflict that would dry up the inflow of cheap, environmentally-unfriendly, and poorly-made consumer goods and investment money that encourages widespread corruption and too many unfavorable political compromises would probably hurt, in the short term. Not having the easy option of “just getting it from China” would, however, encourage greater domestic investment and business growth in the Philippines, if for no other reason than the sudden lack of outside competition. And from the Chinese perspective, the loss of the huge and geographically-convenient Philippine market would be intolerable, both economically and politically.
It is the assertion of the Republic of the Philippines that the Scarborough Shoal is Philippine territory, part of the municipality of Masinloc, Zambales, and if that is an assertion made with any conviction, then the presence of Chinese military units there is an invasion and an act of war, and ought to be treated as such. The Gregorio del Pilar is not the world’s most impressive piece of military hardware, but what is the point of having it “to protect the state’s interest,” if it is not actually applied to that purpose? Obviously a 45-year-old second-hand US Coast Guard cutter is not going to win a war with China, but if used correctly it won’t have to, because it will give the Chinese the one thing they’re not expecting and not prepared for – Philippine resolve. If this country and its leadership actually have any, now is the time to show it.